Ever so slowly I inch my way through the scrub, closing in purposefully on the result of what was possibly my life’s crowning achievement. I keep low and don’t yet have him visual, though I hear him shuffling about and know he is close. The wind is in my face and of no concern, but rhinos have acute hearing and I watch my step. Ten yards ahead and slightly to the right is a conveniently placed anthill and I make for it, using it as approach cover. Then I cautiously ascend the mound on my hands and knees and peep over the top. There, not twenty paces away, browsing brush in a small clearing, is the result of what was possibly my life’s crowning achievement: finding Jimmy.
Lying flat and wriggling myself as comfortably as possible, I am soon totally absorbed by the scene before me – a black rhino going about its business in its natural habitat. And not just any black rhino, either. It has been a long time, but thanks to his extended foster family (Anne Whittall in particular), Jimmy is finally back where he belongs. That knowledge fills me with indescribable satisfaction. I watch him for about twenty minutes and then he ambles from the clearing, into the trees and out of sight – totally oblivious to my presence, as I had wanted. Walking slowly back to the road, my thoughts begin wandering, to that miraculous day two years ago, when I stumbled upon Jim, huddled in terror beneath that bush….
It was early April 2007, and I was doing an anti-poaching stint for Roger Whittall on Humani, in the Save Conservancy. Although anti-poaching is mostly a tiresome, unrewarding, and depressing task, the game scouts had enjoyed a series of recent successes and we were all in an upbeat frame. Until we heard that another rhino had been poached, that is.
I had been out on patrol all day and only heard the news that evening. As Roger informed me, the carcass of a poached female rhino had been discovered by scouts that morning, in a vast Mopani forest that offsets an area of open plain known as Jurus. Reacting to the news, Humani management and conservancy anti-poaching personnel discovered that the rhino had been shot days before, any clues long since erased by nature. If, indeed, there ever had been any clues – after taking in the scene, investigators were left in no doubt that the heinous crime had been committed by a thorough professional and that it was an inside job.
The poacher had known exactly where to find his victim and had struck swiftly, during a period of wet weather. The drizzle had fast erased all signs of his passing. One well-placed frontal brain shot was all it took. The horns were sawn off flush with the rhino’s face, and not one shaving was overlooked. Because the poacher knew the conservancy identifies its rhino with ear markings and tags, he lopped the ears off. Then he covered the carcass with foliage to deceive the vultures and delay its discovery, before departing as efficiently as he had committed his dastardly deed. Was it simply coincidence that the shooting occurred a day or two after Roger had sent that area’s scouts off for a few days of R&R? Somehow, after all the facts became known, none of us could quite swallow that.
Although we were aware that the rhino in question had recently birthed and had had a very young calf at the heel, nothing much was thought of it. She had been dead for several days and her calf’s chances of survival were considered non-existent. Especially since investigators reported an abundance of fresh lion spoor crisscrossing the area and no trace of the calf whatsoever. It seemed an absolute impossibility that the calf could have survived, and yet there was a twist in the tale. That twist was little Jimmy’s will to live.
To this day, I don’t know what prompted me to ask if I could go to the scene of the crime the following morning. There was no need – the carcass and vicinity had already been thoroughly checked over. Anyway, I just wanted to take a look and Roger thought it a good idea. As an afterthought, Roger instructed me to take a couple of scouts along and dig around for a bullet in the rotten carcass – an order that didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. Soon I was on my way, with Isaac Bangai and Rindai Rindai, two trusty RWS trackers who operate as senior game scouts in the hunting off-season. I have worked with Isaac and Rindai extensively and know them both to be capable and willing fellows. As it turned out, I couldn’t have had a couple of better guys along for the ride.
We arranged to meet with the scouts who had made the grisly discovery, and they were waiting when we arrived in the Jurus area an hour later. After driving a short distance further, we left the vehicle on the roadside and entered the close-knit Mopani forest, walking off in single file behind Daniel, the stick leader of that particular patrol. There were three scouts, so we were six in total. Great, I thought to myself, I wouldn’t need to do too much digging around in the rotting rhino – there were plenty of hands for the job! Can’t totally give up on the old colonial bit, you know. I mean, who built Southern Africa anyway?
After Daniel lost his way a couple of times, we came to the place. As we approached the pathetic lump of dead mass that represented what was once the pride of this land’s wildlife heritage, a huge lump came to my throat. Who could do this thing, I silently wondered. All was quiet for long minutes as we stared in disbelief at the horrific scene before our eyes. It was a truly shocking sight and every man amongst us felt bitter resentment. Not resentment actually – rage and hatred. But it was wasted emotion because we were helpless to do anything. Unless…Unless we could find something, some clue for investigators to work with. We got to work severing the head and dissecting.
I actually did assist in the gruesome labor initially, but only to get the others inspired. After about thirty minutes of inhaling and groping the maggot-infested, putrid flesh, however, I decided that the others were by then well inspired and decided to go on a little reconnaissance patrol. I informed the guys that I was off to take a look about, suggesting that maybe I would find a clue – the poacher may have dropped a bullet, or something. My suggestion was met with skepticism, but it was reluctantly agreed that finding a clue was a remote possibility. The general reaction told me that I had about a one in a zillion chance of finding anything, but hey, one never knows. Besides, I just enjoy scouting about the unfamiliar country. It is amazing what I have discovered in the past by simply heading off and roaming around the woods for a while.
After walking a large semi-circle through the forest for about an hour, seeing many lion tracks but nothing out of the ordinary, I decided to return. I find it pretty easy to get lost in the bush, and it took me a while to work out my bearings and make off in what I kind of thumb-sucked was the right direction. Changing tack a few times, I soon set on a course and began walking in what I thought to be a straight line. I always imagine I’m holding a straight line when walking in the bush, though usually, that is not the case. In fact, I don’t ever remember walking a straight line! Anyway, I was headed where I was headed and off I went, striding through the Mopani and whistling a little ditty. Not fifteen minutes later, I walked into Jimmy.
It was an absolute miracle that I walked into him. He was hidden beneath a leafy bush, and had I walked ten yards on either side of that bush I would have missed him. As it was, I almost literally walked onto him. Taking a step, I glanced casually to my left in the same motion and then froze in mid-stride. I froze for only a second or two but much took place in that time. There was the baby rhino lying prone beneath the bush, with only his forequarters visible, staring wide-eyed up at me. Due to his wide-eyed expression, my first reaction was that he was dead, and in that instant, I felt the double-whammy of loss. But then he blinked and I saw that he was definitely not dead just too petrified to move and risk discovery. Although very young, Jimmy had already been given impressionable insight into the cruel nature of human beings. I paused for only that second or two, and then I continued on my way without any other reaction, so as to not unduly alarm the little guy. About forty yards further, when I was well away from him, I burst into a flat sprint through the Mopani. It was the fastest I have moved in years and thoughts were pounding through my mind. Where were the guys? Was I going in the right direction? How far did I walk, and how far was I from the others? As I ran, fending off whippy branches with my arms, I tried to figure out where I was, and more importantly, where the guys were. I ran wildly for several hundred meters, before stopping to listen for the first time. It was probably the first several hundred-meter sprint I’ve ever done! Blood was pumping through my veins, my breathing was ragged, and I found it difficult to tune my ears to the surrounding sound. Where was I, where were they? Almost panicking, I wanted to scream out my frustration. I closed my eyes for a minute and allowed the blood rush to slow slightly, working my jaw and trying to clear my ears. And then I heard the deep booming laugh of Isaac Bangai, carrying faintly on the wind. The guys were somewhere up ahead, slightly off to the left. Had I thought about it then, I would have realized that I had almost achieved a straight line on my return route. But I didn’t think about anything, because I was sprinting off through the bush again.
The scouts appraised me quizzically as I approached at the run and came to an untidy halt beside them. Between gasps, I told them that I had seen a rhino in the bush.
‘Did it chase you?’ asked Isaac.
‘No, it is a young rhino.’
‘Even a young rhino can chase you,’ stated Daniel, matter of factly.
‘It is very young,’ I said, hands on knees, getting my breathing back under control. ‘It is the baby of this dead rhino.’
‘Is it dead?’ asked Isaac, getting down to business in his no-nonsense manner.
‘No, otherwise I would not have tried to join it in death, by running as fast as I did to get here.’ My heart rate was returning to normal.
‘Let us go and catch it then.’
‘Yes, let us go and catch it.’
‘Handidi.’ ‘I won’t,’ said Daniel, ‘it will bite someone!’
A short argument ensued, as I tried to convince Daniel and the other two scouts that the rhino would do anything but bite them. It could charge them, butt them, run them over, but it would definitely not bite them. They remained unconvinced and I ended up with the support of only Isaac and Rindai. As it turned out, it was probably a good thing – less is sometimes more. Without further ado, Isaac, Rindai, and I retraced my headlong flight through the Mopani. As we went, we discussed our plan of action – our rhino capture strategy.
Stealthily, we approached the bush where I knew the little calf to be. Now, when I say ‘little’, I had already estimated it to be about 50 kilograms. Although I imagined it would have next to no strength, having been without milk for days on end, I really didn’t know what it was capable of. Our intention was to capture the rhino fast, with as little commotion as possible, in order to avoid causing it more trauma than it had already endured. Above all, I did not want to risk it getting away and heading off into the Mopani. It had survived as long as it had, how much longer could it live? Bearing all of the above in mind, we sneaked in on whom we would soon get to know as Jimmy, me from the front, and Isaac and Rindai from the rear. We were well-prepped and all knew what to do, although the game plan was not exactly complicated. It basically boiled down to ‘grab the rhino and don’t let go!’ Actually, there was a little more to it – I was to try a soft approach initially and test the little chap’s strength. But Isaac and Rindai knew they needed to be very close when I made contact – I ensured they were clear on that!
As I slowly and silently crept in the last few yards, I thought it was going to be a cinch. Jimmy did not stir, but his little eyes followed my approach all the way in. And then I was within a yard, slowly and purposefully bending my knees, lowering myself to his level. There was no reaction whatsoever as I squatted down, and so I reached out my hand to touch his face. And that was the point when I realized the capture was not going to be a cinch, as Jimmy exploded from the ground and butted me viciously about the knees! I toppled over backward onto my backside, but as I went, I grabbed hold of an ear and held on for dear life! Huffing and snorting, Jimmy fast intensified the attack, the barrage of head-butts crashing into my legs and torso intensifying by the second. The fact that that month-old creature possessed that amount of power after four days without nourishment is beyond me to this day. Whilst not a WWF wrestler or anything; I am relatively strong and I struggled with all my strength to hold on to Jimmy for those few seconds. The head-butting was enough to bring out bruises on my legs the following day. What a fight he put up! The poor little guy must have thought it was his last fight.
Although I was certainly on the receiving end of a serious thrashing, the tag team, fortunately, wasted no time lending their weight. Within seconds, Isaac had a back leg grasped firmly, whilst Rindai came to assist up front. Then we dropped Jimmy like a sheep, whipping all his legs out from under him. Once down, Jimmy began squealing hysterically, probably assuming the fight was now really over and death imminent. Do you assume animals don’t think that way? Specifically month old animals? Let me assure you that they do. Animals know all about death from the day they are born. Anyway, Jimmy began squealing like a stuck pig and trying his utmost to tear his head from my grasp. In the process, he swept me around in the dust a little. Isaac and Rindai held onto his legs resolutely, and Daniel and the other scouts observed proceedings from a safe distance. During that struggle, Jimmy satisfactorily demonstrated the awesome power a rhino possesses, specifically in the neck and shoulder region. Three strong men struggled for minutes to restrain a 50 kg animal that had not been fed for four days, and that is almost unbelievable.
A semblance of order eventually came about when I whipped off my shirt and covered the exposed side of Jimmy’s face. Then he could not see and the crazy head threshing eased. But I still had to clasp his head tightly to my body – the slightest release of pressure brought about a renewed effort. Once he had calmed a little, Daniel and the other scouts plucked up the courage to approach closer. I barked out orders.
‘Daniel, wuya kuno!’ ‘Come here!’
There must have been something in my tone that made Daniel temporarily forget his fear of being bitten by a rhino, and he obeyed with alacrity. I ordered him to take over Rindai’s position holding the front legs – Rindai is a driver and we needed him to go and fetch the vehicle. I instructed Rindai not to waste time looking for a suitable route through the forest, but to return with all due haste. About half an hour later, we heard him returning – from the sound of things he had taken my instructions to heart! Soon he was revving and ramming his way up to us through the last hundred meters of Mopani scrub. As the truck approached, I turned to Isaac who was still patiently manning the rear end of a now fairly subdued rhino.
‘What is its name?’ I asked.
Of course, although I have been referring to Jimmy as a ‘he’ throughout this story, we had no idea what sex he was. In a similar vein, I have been referring to him as Jimmy, but we obviously had no name for him. That was the case until Isaac peered between his back legs and made a positive identification regarding sex. Isaac did not ponder the name choice for long.
‘James. Jimmy, we shall call him Jimmy,’ stated the deep voice.
It was easy to agree with Isaac’s name choice: Roger Whittall’s father, James, was known as Jimmy, and Roger’s grandson is also named James. And so, Jimmy the rhino officially joined the fold.
David Hulme is a Zimbabwean writer and professional wanderer who spends most of his time searching for new stories and country, never staying too long in any one place.